Drought Kills Crops on Great Plains

A drought has been lingering in the Great Plains for six years. A federal meteorologist calls it the third-worst U.S. drought on record. Farmers in some parts of the country have endured Dust Bowl-like conditions this summer.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Farmers in the Great Plains knew this was going to be a tough summer. Rains heavy enough to soak the soil never came this past spring. A dry spell dragging on since 1999 means another year of drought, another year of Dust Bowl-like conditions, especially in the hard hit Dakotas. Even summer showers didn't help much.

Mr. RALPH HOLZWARTH (Farmer, Gettysburg, South Dakota): We've caught some rain here in August but it was too late.

MONTAGNE: Ralph Holzwarth is a farmer in Gettysburg, South Dakota.

Mr. HOLZWARTH: The crops were already pretty well lost before that. But up to about the first of August, we had somewheres around three inches of rain. Normal rainfall is between 18 and 19.

MONTAGNE: U.S. Agricultural Department maps show extreme drought areas stretching from Texas to North Dakota. The governor of South Dakota last week called for 51 of his state's 66 counties to be declared federal agriculture disaster areas. The governor of North Dakota asked that all 53 counties in his state be named disaster areas.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The economic pain has spread from ranchlands into surrounding towns. Byron Mills owns a hardware store in Faulkton, South Dakota, population about 800.

Mr. BYRON MILLS (Faulkton Hardware, South Dakota): It's tough. I notice less people coming through the doors. They're - when they do come through they're buying just what they need. You know, there's no luxuries or anything. You know, if they need 20 bolts to fix something, that's what they came in for.

INSKEEP: Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns visited the drought region last week. He announced nearly $800 million in aid but many farmers and ranchers say the help falls short of what they need. It was the talk of the airwaves, though.

Mr. AL GUSTIN (Host, Farm News, North Dakota): Hello, everyone. I'm Al Gustin with the Farm News. And we start off talking about that new livestock assistance program, the one the secretary announced in South Dakota this week.

INSKEEP: Al Gustin has been reporting the Farm News for a number of radio stations for 38 years. He also helps to run his family's ranch outside Bismarck, North Dakota. We reached him there for a first hand report on the breadth and depth of the drought.

Mr. GUSTIN: Geographically, it probably is not as widespread as some. But in this area, from the Bismarck-Mandan area, south to the South Dakota border, and down through central South Dakota toward the Pierre area, it is probably as severe as anything that I've seen.

INSKEEP: Who's worst affected?

Mr. GUSTIN: I think by and large it'll be the cattlemen. And the problem that they've had this year is that it's been little or no hay. Their traditional hay sources simply did not grow. In addition to that, we've had several years of a limited rainfall and little or no snowmelt in the spring. And so the traditional watering holes, the dams and so forth, have gone dry.

And what a lot of people are doing is, you have a large tank, you fill it at the yard and then you haul it out to the pasture where the cattle are, and you set up the tank out there. And you do this once or twice a day and it becomes a major labor expense, obviously, and a major inconvenience. But…

INSKEEP: What's the water bill look like?

Mr. GUSTIN: Well, it's huge. You know, and so it can be thousands of dollars a month just to provide that water.

INSKEEP: Now, when you say that cattlemen are hurting, are they mostly family ranchers, or are there more big businesses involved here?

Mr. GUSTIN: These are almost exclusively family ranchers. And I have visited, as a newsperson, with dozens all through the summer. In fact, I called a few again just yesterday and today. And, you know, the things that you ask them - you know, did you get any hay put up this year? Nothing. Not a bale. So what are you doing about your feed supply for this winter? Well, we're going, you know, 100 miles away. We're putting up some hay. We've sold some cows. And hopefully, if the winter is not too tough, you know, we're going to get through till spring. And that's the common thread that you hear when you talk to these cattlemen. Everybody is telling the same story: no hay, no grass, no water, and they're - financially they're going backwards, obviously.

INSKEEP: Will the federal government's offer of assistance help people?

Mr. GUSTIN: It's going to be very, very minimal help. There's a $50 million livestock grant assistance program, but that gets divided up among all of the drought-impacted states; some 750 counties up and down the Great Plains. So you kind of figure it out, you do the math, and it comes down to - some estimate one to $2,000 per cattlemen. I mean, there are people here who are going to run up a 20, 30, $40,000 bill putting up hay this year. And so it's a recognition of the problem but that doesn't go much beyond that.

INSKEEP: When it finally does rain, and I know it has recently, do people celebrate? You know, do people run outside? Do you hat into the air? Do you…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GUSTIN: Some do. Absolutely. Yes. In fact, we had a drought rally in town about 10 days ago where the farmers - about four hundred farmers got together and tried to send a message to Washington. And it rained that day and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GUSTIN: We need to hold one of these at least once a week.

INSKEEP: Kind of ruined your photo op, but still…

Mr. GUSTIN: Kind of did. That's exactly right.

INSKEEP: Al Gustin, family rancher, farm reporter in North Dakota. Thanks very much.

Mr. GUSTIN: Thank you for the opportunity.

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